- Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China by Hongwei Bao
In the age of global neoliberalism, the minority groups in the West—be it gendered, sexualized, and/or racialized—are confronted with new challenges recreated right through their own identities. Via the seductive terms of personal liberty and individual benefits allocated through their minoritized identities, the transformative energies of the feminist, antiracist, and LGBTQ activists are substantively neutralized and mitigated through the incorporation into the neoliberal system for conditional recognition in ways to forestall structural changes (Ferguson 2012). For instance, the once-prevalent feminist slogan "the personal is political" has been turned on its head into "the political is personal" as a telling example about how neoliberalism manages its adversaries by sanitizing and neutralizing their resistant collectivities through the fractionalizing and trivializing individualist take (Fraser 2013).
Hongwei Bao's new book, "Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China," provides those living on the margin some hopeful alternative possibilities. Centering on the linguistic and sociopolitical construction of Tongzhi (queer/comrade) as a critical optic, this project offers an intriguing account of how Chinese queers find the fissures and disjunctures within China's neoliberal governing system and mobilize its Socialist legacy to build their solidarity and identity to challenge the statist control over the sexual minorities on the one hand and repudiate global neoliberalism's consumerism-gilded appeal to personal freedom and optimization on the other. As Bao posits, "Tongzhi is not only a linguistic term; it is a newly emerged sexual identity that underpins much of the past thirty years of queer subject formation and activism in the People's Republic of China and beyond, and it is often imagined as politicized sexual subjectivity" (p. 3). Tongzhi, in this regard, is the semantic pun that anchors the sociolinguistic residue of the Socialist camaraderies (as comrade) and carries subversive potentials as non-conforming sexual subjects. Focusing on this term as the analytical linchpin, Bao's project "thus goes beyond the study of sexual minorities in China and becomes a critical enquiry of radical politics and social movements in a transnational context" (p. 4). As the author makes clear, he does not aim to provide an [End Page 9] exhaustive account of queer identity and politics in contemporary China but instead approaches Tongzhi as an analytical tool to "examine subject, power, governmentality, social movements and everyday life in China" (p. 4) and unravels its historicized and contextualized articulation to explore how it opens up new avenues for social changes, which can strategically draw upon the experience of Stonewall movement, but does not have to strictly follow its personal-rights-oriented telos.
To drive home his major thesis, Bao takes a multidisciplinary approach and draws upon an array of methods combining ethnographic data with critical discursive analysis. His account is subsequently divided into two parts. The first part offers a situated evaluation of the shifting meanings of the Tongzhi concept and how the sexual minority groups apply it to their quotidian life. In chapter 1, Bao explicates how the term, for its intimate connection to the Socialist legacy of revolutionary solidarity and collectivity, has become a rallying tool for Chinese gays to develop a unique position distinguished from both the pathologized and debilitated sexual others (as Tongxinglian) and the Western concept of gays that mark "well-educated, rights-conscious, socially respectable and consumption-oriented urban youth" (p. 61). Instead, Tongzhi are "socially responsible citizens" who "work hard, study hard and make significant contributions to society" (p. 54). Situating the term in broader sociohistorical context, chapter 2 traces its genealogy to delineate how Tongzhi becomes a vital identity in Chinese gay communities. As Bao articulates, building on its linkage to the statist Socialist discourse, Tongzhi acquires the homonormative connotations to mark "law-abiding, well-educated and both aspirational and model citizens" (p. 83), while lala (an umbrella term for lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, and intersex) and ku'er (queer) index a more...